Maybe a billion Chinese can’t be wrong, but when it comes to cultural richness, not being wrong is only the beginning, as New York City discovered last fall. Carnegie Hall, in collaboration with other organizations, presented “Ancient Paths, Modern Voices”, a three-week cornucopia of tributes to the influence of China’s culture. Posters used the word “festival”, but calling the event a multi-art explosion wouldn’t be wrong either.
So many events took place in so many locations that lovers of Chinese art could have had a festival strolling through galleries without a note of music, while dance buffs saw a festival’s worth of Chinese troupes at the Joyce Theater. The Lower East Side and Flushing, Queens, which have large Asian populations, offered recitals, instrumental workshops, and family performances. There were novelties: marionettes, panel discussions at museums, and TV and film documentaries. Carnegie Hall’s gift shop looked like an airport duty-free with silk Lang Lang scarves near the low end of a price spectrum topped by a $1,250 men’s jacket.
Carnegie Hall’s autumn festival, now in its third year, keeps expanding. Parts of this one were presented almost simultaneously at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Orange County, California. Performers zipped from New York to the West Coast, and some must have gone back and forth. Music directors and their orchestras traveled to Carnegie Hall: David Robertson brought the St Louis Symphony, Robert Spano the Atlanta Symphony; and Michael Tilson Thomas came from San Francisco to conduct the Juilliard Orchestra. Hong Kong and Shanghai orchestras visited, conducted by Yan Huichang and Long Yu.
A number of musicians were traveling outside China for the first time, while others— among them Tan Dun and Cho-Liang Lin— have US careers; Wu Man and Angel Lam are in Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. New York audiences certainly had newcomers—one asked how to pronounce “Carnegie”, following with, “Do you come here often?”
A lot of musical culture goes down in 3,000 years. “Ancient Paths” encompassed opera, music for acrobats, varied Western genres, contemporary modes, composers’ works from this country—or theirs—and performance styles from this country—or theirs. The arts of millions over centuries is far more than the speck many New Yorkers know. (I got a whiff of what we think we know, privately or unconsciously, when people who usually clamor to join me at concerts could barely be persuaded to sample these.) Chinese artists know the Cultural Revolution’s dark side, the “class of 78”, and the Gang of Four—their history— photo by Chris Lee Long Yu conducts The Shanghai Symphony Orchestra while most Americans still puzzle over Chinese names.
At the first orchestral concert (after five days of events), the much-decorated Tan Dun led the Juilliard Orchestra in an evening of his vocal, percussion, and cello-ensemble works at Alice Tully Hall. The Love, his eclectic violin concerto commissioned by Juilliard and the Singapore Symphony, was introduced by Cho- Liang Lin, a Juilliard faculty member and alumnus. It explores three kinds of love: “teenage” to a hip-hop beat; “middle-aged” to a lyrical, elegiac solo in the manner of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (the film score that won Tan an Oscar); and “spiritual” to a long movement of several moods. Colorfully urban, its busy action ranges from danceable and dainty to elephantine, with urgent string scrubbing and generous percussion. Lin, who records on Sony, is a formidable, enthusiastic player and personality. His command of rhythm, complex double-stops, agility in high positions, and expressive notes over a large range were supported by a snug ensemble.
Tan, whose Water Concerto was heard elsewhere in the festival, was inspired as both a violinist and composer by a visit long ago of the Philadelphia Orchestra to China; Lin was inspired by Itzhak Perlman’s 1975 visit to Australia. East-West crosscurrents were a central festival theme.
A Carnegie Hall recital called “Lang Lang and Friends” announced Schubert, Bizet, Tchaikovsky, and TBA. TBA, it turned out, were Hua, Huang, Gu, and Ussuri, names perhaps judged too risky to put out with initial publicity, but enchanting to encounter.
At 27, the pianist Lang Lang, who has Western credits and Asian roots, was by no means the youngest performer. He gave a big break to four gifted children, among the many that benefit from his foundation that supports music training for Chinese children. He played the bass part in a late Schubert Rondo while Marc Yu, 10, played the treble—with graceful style and apparently full understanding. (Later, the kids did more than justice to a tinkling chromatic mess on themes from Carmen for two pianos, eight hands.)
It is tempting to say that The Moon Reflected on the Er-Quan Spring for two-stringed erhu, Horse Racing for erhu (with added piano), and the traditional song ‘That Is Me, Mama’ don’t sound Chinese. Moon by Hua Yanjun, played by Guo Gan, tall and dignified in his pale blue robe, is a dreamy pentatonic tune in the Irish ballad style, while Guo and Lang’s rendition of horse racing galloped to an abrupt end. The simple melody in a minor key, sung by the pitch-perfect tenor Gequn Wang, resembles ‘Motherless Child’. Not recognizing their origin means we don’t know the scope of Chinese music. The hint was an enlivening message.
The Han Tang Yuefu Music & Dance Ensemble (photo by Richard Termine)
Tchaikovsky’s meditative Piano Trio in A minor is not often heard because few listeners have 45 minutes for a trio any more. It was a pleasure to chill out with Lang Lang, Met Orchestra Concertmaster David Chan, and Philadelphia Orchestra Principal Cellist Hai-Ye Ni, whose solo CD is on Naxos.
Pipa virtuoso Wu Man hosted, translated, and added drum backup for the percussion quartet Ba Da Chui (which translates as 8 Great Hammers) at University Settlement on the Lower East Side, described as 60 percent Chinese, though not many attended. Ba Da Chui is one man per pair of piercingly loud metal cymbals—or gong or frame or bongo drum—and he has two mallets (sharp or soft) that can change not only the timbre but also the pitch. In China, much of this exciting music is for opera acrobats. Acting like tigers, the players grimaced and mimed pawing a big drum. One drummer’s wife played a solo on the xin (pronounced chin), a rare zither with no picks.
In the galleries, several art exhibitions were grouped as “China in Chelsea”. The painter Qi Zhilong took off on Soviet propaganda subjects, humanizing and beautifying faces of uniformed girls in the Red Guard, who were painted with Western lips and vari-colored eyes on the same face. Another gallery showed Chinese versions of commedia dell’arte harlequins.
Visitors might have wondered if they even know what Chinese people look like, but, for sure, there are angry, mocking artists out there who created a naked plastic-and-steel space traveler, a bottomless female soldier, and a fragmented portrait of Andy Warhol. Contemporary Chinese art photographs in the corridors of Zankel Hall were colorful and, by contrast, calmly scenic.
East-West intersections at the core of the festival’s message were extravagantly displayed in a Kronos Quartet-Wu Man “Perspectives” concert in Zankel Hall that, strangely, was not part of the festival. Its first half was Tan Dun’s 1995 Ghost Opera, composed for Kronos and Wu, a frequent guest. (Parts were offered in Zankel about three years ago.) They performed bits from the side aisle, shouted, and tapped stones held in their mouths. David Harrington slowly scooped water from a lighted bowl and drew a bow on a water-dipped cymbal. Wu and cellist Jeffrey Zeigler took turns playing from an elevated chair behind a scrim. Lighting was red and under-water turquoise.
(Full disclosure: I have heard enough Tan Dun—stones clacked in mouths, dripping water, his exuberant blurry speeches about once playing violin for pennies in the New York subway. I liked Crouching Tiger because of the production and Yo-Yo Ma, but I’m no fan of The First Emperor, a 2006 must-see at the Metropolitan Opera. But my colleagues insist that the Emperor is indeed clothed.)
The ensemble’s premiere of A Chinese Home was “something completely different”. Exciting, novel, and moving, it is basically a video accompanied by music by Camilla French with designer Chen Shi-Zheng. It is a genre of music theater in four sections: Return, Shanghai, The East Is Red, and Made in China. Inspired by Yin Yu Tang, the Chinese merchant’s house at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, A Chinese Home mixes traditional and contemporary styles that accompany vignettes of China’s political and cultural history, shown onscreen as the piece progresses from pastoral to Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley influences, to Chairman Mao, propaganda songs, dances of the Cultural Revolution, and, finally, to prodigious industrialization.
In addition to playing their instruments, performers changed costumes, played other instruments, banged on stools, and at one point Wu, donning a nightclub dress and makeup, sang at a standing mike. The end pumped up, finishing on a darkened stage with lighted plastic toys buzzing around.
The Paley Center for Media, formerly the Museum of Television and Radio, presented a weekend of Chinese-American links including “From Mao to Mozart”, “CBS Reports: The Boston Symphony Goes to China”, “Death of a Salesman in China” (Arthur Miller directing a production in Chinese), and the renowned former New York City Ballet principal dancer The Han Tang Yuefu Music & Dance Ensemble Jacques D’Amboise teaching American dance idiom to Shanghai kids—a couple of whom danced in this festival.
The cross-currents theme was outlined in both final Carnegie Hall concerts. Robert Spano led the Atlanta Symphony in Angel Lam’s new cello concerto, Awakening from a Disappearing Garden, a Carnegie Hall commission introduced in Atlanta and scheduled for performances in other cities. The soloist was—who else?—Yo-Yo Ma. Its two attractive movements were preceded by narration written and spoken by Lam, a Hong Kong-born doctoral student at the Peabody Institute. She called the piece “a story about two women— two different generations, two different eras— in a society that turned our nature upside down and then upside down again”.
The concerto is about tonal melody and atmosphere rather than rhythm or traditional structure. Ma’s warm, stately line swooped and swept magnificently as Spano kept the orchestra well under the solo. To the Western ear, thudding drum, chimes, woodblock, and pentatonic harmony were Asian suggestions. Some minutes were cut from the end, hinting at revisions to come. The piece is worth working on and worth hearing.
It was paired with Stravinsky’s short Russian- Chinese opera, The Nightingale, semistaged and, for union reasons, without the elaborate projections seen in Atlanta. It was nonetheless beautiful, with the memorable coloratura soprano Celena Shafer in the title role. Time has been kind to this French-influenced piece; and Spano, who made a perceptive point that music is not a universal language, was a solid advocate.
The demanding, satisfying finale by the Shanghai Symphony personified classical music’s rocky path in China. The heavy bilingual book on its 130-year history describes periods when the orchestra wasn’t permitted to perform, or was just a “band”, or when musicians weren’t allowed to practice and Western-style repertory was forbidden. (The 1979 CBS program showed Boston Symphony director Seiji Ozawa leading a rehearsal in Shanghai, but not a concert.)
Music director Long Yu (or Yu Long—both were in the program notes—Yu is his family name) is a powerhouse of East-West and political- cultural connections. It took all his skills to get to Carnegie Hall with Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and the Peking Operainformed Iris Dévoilée (Iris Unveiled) by Chen Qigang, who attended.
The performers clearly wanted the Rachmaninoff to be good. Yu and Lang Lang made extended showy gestures, as in dance or tennis. The piano rang out but blended in soft passages. Orchestral tone was a little like an old recording, and Yu’s huge motions pulled the beast along.
Wu Man + pipa
Confidence grew in Chen’s piece, which required fewer podium histrionics. Soloists in Iris were a costumed Peking Opera soprano (big square hat with flower and tassels) who sang in that genre’s high wail, pipa player, erhu player, and zheng player—the instrument looked like a xin. Movements depicted aspects of Woman: “ingenious, chaste, libertine, sensitive, tender, jealous, melancholic, hysterical, voluptuous”. (Audience members who had come for Lang Lang trickled out during the piece.) Chen was the last pupil of Messiaen, and some impressionist passages were right out of Debussy. Maybe Chen is China’s counterpart to Takemitsu.
For three weeks pamphlets and books assisted listeners in making choices, since there was too much for anyone to take in. In one, Bright Sheng described Western music in China as “like Chinese food here—not very authentic. Well, perhaps you get better Chinese food here than Western music in China, because at least here the chefs are Chinese.” Humbled by all that is still to be absorbed, I delved into cuisine as well (not covered in the festival) and joined friends for Chinese takeout, which will never seem the same.